Friday, 6 March 2015

A Winter Love Affair

Anyone who knows me knows where my heart now lies in winter. Yes, there has been a slight displacement. I used to spend winter drooling over boots in shop windows and waiting for prices to come crashing down. I always used to find a good and solid reason to invest in just another pair of shoes. I mean, I needed them, I couldn't leave them. I was certain I didn't have a pair like this.

A dozen years have slipped by in this country. Children have been raised. Pets have been born and buried. Homework has been chewed by dogs (I'm serious: try telling superstar Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong'go that the dog has chewed the copy of The Devil on the Cross that your son wants him to sign). Walls have been painted a half dozen colours; pipes have burst, cars have broken down and been driven into the ground (in fact, you raised your kids on Jimi Hendrix and Chopin on the tangenziale di Mestre). Cherries have been eaten and roses pruned and - last week! - the house finally has a heating system that works so that means nearly fifteen degrees in the kitchen!!

A long, good haul.

I'm not trying to be difficult or precious by saying I never wanted to live in Italy. When I was a young student with an Italian boyfriend living in snooty Paris, I couldn't help looking at Italy as a Fellini set, with all characters striving to look like Dolce e Gabbana models. The gesticulation drove me nuts. I mean, just say it! Without waving your hands! Without looking to see if everyone is checking you out. Stop talking over people and listen!

But one subsides, I guess; one becomes less hard-edged. One accepts. One - gulp! - probably even begins to behave like that.

The thing is that while there is a lot of social conformity in this country, there are great differences in region and terrain, which translates to mentality and attitude. In twelve years I have learnt to decipher a little of this, and in doing so I feel as though I have invented my Italy. An Italy that is far from clichéd (wine, pasta, monuments), and brings out the best in this France-loving Sydneysider ex-West African dweller.

Any idea what is coming next? You guessed it: the Dolomites.

Winter has become The Ski Season. It's when we abandon all ties to city life and friends and go barmy for snow, watching the weather, waiting for fresh snow, seeing if we can afford a new pair of skis, hanging out with a fantastic mountain crew. And while global warming will continue to shorten the season, as long as it's on, count me in. There is something so gutsy, so non-cerebral, so mind-blowing about falling in love with sunset or sunrise on a mountain summit, with a sweaty trek up to the slopes and a freezing ride in the chairlift, with filling your lungs with that giddy oxygen. While I can't really write about city life in Italy, I find the mountains inspiring, shocking, laden with tales to be told.

So I'm signing off. Now you know where to find me on these last winter weekends. Doing telemark curves on my favourite slope. Reading on the couch in an exhausted stupor. Drinking grappa al carrugo in some bar. Or just watching snow floating down out the window.

In fact, until April, this author has snow for brains.

Friday, 6 February 2015

How Fragile We Are

I was going to write a sombre-toned post-Charlie-Hebdo blog post about this winter's work mission to fashion week in Paris. You know, grey rooftops and the Eiffel Tower glittering in spite of all that horror. A jitteriness in the air that we may well have been imagining, jittery ourselves. And this contrasted with the wild and rewarding disco night we enjoyed, crowned with countless glasses of champagne. For Paris - she has lived revolution, siege and warfare - is licking her wounds.

But no. I came home from the tragic city to a small-scale family emergency. A child of mine in an ambulance. Everything thankfully resolved hours later in a local hospital. Then a day of follow-up in the wards of the massive hospital in town. Hours of standing, waiting, wishing for food, praying no one would jump the queue, finishing my book and nagging said child, as one does. A long day through which it all came home, how fragile we are. How we think we are steering our destinies but, in the grand arc of our lives, we are not. How we can try so hard to be healthy, to keep our dear ones healthy - and fail.

Like most of us I view hospitals as locations of dread. Awful nights of agony or the agony of a loved one - which you wish you could bear yourself. Mostly, these are relatively minor things which provide stonking stories afterwards: the time that guy crashed into your son and he was carried down the slopes on a stretcher; the time you put on snow chains halfway up the pass coming back from Agordo with your daughter's cracked arm in plaster and sling. But then there are the traumatic moments of fear, tests.. trying to read the doctor's face. The waiting. The knowledge that apart from childbirth or routine checkups, you are never going to be here for an innocent reason. It will always be because something it's wrong or if it isn't now, it will be one day.

Australian Tim Winton grew up 'In the Shadow of the Hospital' and wrote this stirring piece for Granta. 'No wonder so many great novels have been set in hospitals.. Hospitals make rich fictional settings because from the inside they are such chillingly plausible worlds themselves. They have their own surreal logic, their own absurd governance, their own uncanny weather, and the impotence and boredom they induce is hard to match anywhere by prison or the military.'

Once I finish reading my book I spend numerous hours looking at everybody around. There's a real cast of characters. Old creaky folk on stretchers, a pregnant African lady I can see is in pain, a labourer with blood running down under his cap, listless babies wrapped in scarves. Everyone is exposed, at some extremity of emotion. As Tim Winton says: ' the lee of the hospital social camouflage slips away.. Where else do people bear their narratives so openly? Body language is heightened, almost balletic..'

Eight hours later when we go outside to the car park it is dark and colder. My son can walk now. We are both starving and glad of our release into the real world. But is it the real world? Or just a reprieve? Still more people pour over the bridge to the main entrance, an endless stream. Hard faces, each of them; fast paces, big coats. Nobody wanders into a hospital.

That night I remember dancing half-drunk in Paris just days ago, and the long drive home through France and up into the mountains, rain thrashing the windscreen, trucks passing outside the Psycho Hotel where myself and my colleagues hardly slept a wink.

I am grateful.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Heritage and Hipsters

This weekend, in a rather masochistic mood, I decided to clean out. I mean, The Big Clean, the one I promised myself I would attempt over the summer. These are the things that slip behind while what we call 'life' goes on, right? 

You may not know this but in my house I have many wooden trunks. I used to collect them. You may also not know that I moved around quite a lot in the early years (I was even going to say 'self-defining years', but when does one ever finish defining Self; we are all works-in-progress). So, in these many wooden trunks I have been stashing letters, photographs, kids' drawings, unwanted jewellery, beads, more photographs, beady-eyed sculptures, torn diaries, for years and years. 

I need a drink before I can open them. 

As I began I remembered something that a friend once wrote to me - in a handwritten letter!- that stuck. She spoke about the moment that she was putting out the rubbish and she looked back to the lights of her house, where her family (since split up, re-partnered, split up) had just finished dinner. She said that in that moment, she saw her life, and she realised she was content.

This thought crystallised as I started to open envelope after envelope of images. Just-born babies, kids in trucks, first-day-at-school shots, art shots, nudes, road trip reports, ceremonies, a friend who told me he would kill himself, (and did); more breastfeeding shots, a new baby, a tableful of family, bedraggled kids on a beach, sandcastles, my hero Youssou N'Dour..

And then, at the bottom of the trunk, face down, I saw love. Oh geez. That knocked me for six. You remember it. You wanted it so hard, you fought for it so hard.

And you lost, by the way.

Initially your kids are such unknowing and generous beings, prepared to love you unconditionally as you do them, but if they knew. If they knew how messy it all was then, all the high drama, would they have traded you in or begged to be adopted out?

I wonder. And yet, looking at these innumerable photos, you see moments where it worked, where there was harmony, deep and fundamental harmony or snatches of it.

Years ago, when my kids were young and we had come to live in this house, I used to go outside in the dark with a cup of tea and look up at the bedroom lights glowing. Even then I knew I was holding onto it, that these moments were vast and finite. Now, most of my kids have moved out to study and I rather enjoy walking up to the main road with the rubbish, along the unsealed drive between the vineyard and the green winter wheat, with the dark villa on the rise looking like Arnold Böcklin's Island of the Dead. It isn't a long walk, but it's enough to allow a few thoughts to wriggle loose. On the way down the hill - always - I see the house lit up, less than in years passed, and I think Yes, this is happening now, this is what it is.

Not a bad thought.

In other wild and alluring news from the ranch I spotted a pair of hipsters at my local country supermarket. I began a sneaky pursuit. Were they real hipsters who had moved here to grow cherries? Were they on a visit to some confounded farmer - a family relative? I followed the girl's blue hair and the guy's cropped beard and tattooed neck and rolled-up jeans until they cottoned on to my crooked trolley full of dog food.

It remains a mystery.

Friday, 2 January 2015

The Divorced Author's Guide to New Year's Resolutions

1. Don't bother about saying you are giving up coffee. You never will.
2. Don't bother dressing up for work.
3. When in doubt about your current project, go for a drive listening to Rachmaninov. You will realise the smallness of your concerns.
4. Try and food shop for your offspring
5. Do not buy another Moleskin for your writing notes. It will join the fifteen empty ones in your drawer.
6. When depressed, try cleaning the house. Remember it makes you feel useful.
7. When doubly depressed, swim a hundred laps and watch Law & Order eating a huge spinach omelette. You will feel strong and righteous.
8. Decide what you're going to do about the mouse in the attic.
9. Who cares about the story order in your new unpublished story collection?
10. DO NOT talk to non-writers about the order of the stories in your new collection.
11. DO NOT ask your adult son to read new short stories with embarrassing sex scenes.
12. Accept that impoverished writers do not require countless pairs of gorgeous leather boots and Dolce e Gabbana stilettos. Yet.
13. Fill the damned fridge!
14. Don't bark at your offspring when they hungrily ask for an Italian lunch. At 4pm.
15. Stop screaming at hunters in the fields just because they are killing doddery pheasants and you think they are cruel beings. Remember they might take a potshot at the wild foreign woman dressed like a Sherpa.
16. Get off Facebook. Try and understand Twitter.
17. Don't eat ALL the Pierre Marcolini chocolates in three days.
18. Try and remember one good joke.
19. Blog regularly, eat regularly, sleep regularly.
20. Feed the cats.

Good luck and a marvellous 2015 to all you divorced authors and more balanced people as well!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The End of Love: What if Anais Nin and Henry Miller had Skyped?

I had a thought. Young Diva Daughter (who doesn’t read this) spends much time with her Beloved on Skype. They are bewitched. Captivated. If not Skyping, they are furiously typing on whatsapp. Everything is short and furious and oh-so-immediate. No chafing at the postbox and ripping open envelopes with foreign stamps. No scribbled-on sheets of paper to clutch to the heart.
It makes me think of love letters. I mean Love Letters.
Did you ever write reams and scrolls and reams to your Beloved? Hell yeah. (And I didn’t pick up any of them online either.) Ahh, it’s going to sound very old-fashioned to say this, but Weren't Those The Days…
I honestly remember twenty-page intercontinental letters (the girl was verbose; and I couldn’t blog!) and I’m talking about twice a week. I remember notes scribbled after making love, when another Beloved had fallen asleep. The first thing he would read when he got up to go to work! Written with – yes! – a biro on paper. Bits of poems copied out (not copied and pasted). Queasy declarations in bad French or Italian. Collages of dumb photos.. metro tickets.. 
But mostly words words words. Written words where you had to get a flow going and edit yourself as you flew along (no auto-correct or spell-check or any form of self-editing). These words were raw and full of flight, they were scrawled high or crinkled in the corner, cramped along the sides of the page.
Do you remember? Do you remember word love?

And now imagine this. Some of last century’s great lovers (or the most show-offy ones, probably) have just spent an amorous afternoon together. The man – the sexy/sleazy Henry Miller – rushes home to his poor digs and he logs on, and here is Henry looking worse for wear filling up Anais’ screen with his crooked bookshelves on the wall behind. Would we ever have been handed down words such as these to savour if Nin and Miller had skyped??

Don’t expect me to be sane any more. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes – you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous… You became a woman with me. I was almost terrified by it. You are not just thirty years old – you are a thousand years old… I read the paper about suicides and murders and I understand it all thoroughly. I feel murderous, suicidal. I feel somehow that it is a disgrace to do nothing, to just bide one’s time, to take it philosophically, to be sensible..

Quelle fever!
Now do yourself – and the Beloved – a favour. Get out your pen. Find some beautiful paper.

And write a Love Letter.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Women and Rage

There is a lot of sh** in the air lately. I mean that seriously. The farmers in our area are fertilising vacant and weedy fields before ploughing and sowing their winter crop. Up and down the poplar-lined roads you smell the cowshit they spray over these fields. Close all windows please. Do not inhale.

You know, the problem with smartphones and the whole system of texting and whatsapping that has been become our staple, is this: we just can't shut up. Screen diarrhoea, I would say. There is always a text to send, or one to reply to, add to, copy to another friend. When your loved ones are far away, it's wonderful to send or receive a warm thought, isn't it? But when it comes to the big emotions - Love, Anger, Sadness, Throbbing Good News - don't you think that texting is the most unreliable way to convey important stuff?

Let's take Anger. Now. Anger is best delivered in the heat of the moment, face to face, hopefully without plates thrown. No? And then once the angry party expels his or her sentiments, the other party responds/justifies/or just yells back. Doors might be slammed. There could be some rash declarations. If all goes well there might be a cooling off period and perhaps - in time - an apology and renewed understanding.

Agreed? Now let's think about what happens when the angry party uses a smartphone message to convey his or her sentiments. What might have been yelled in the heat of the moment is now recorded within a little machine (I realise that sounds a little Fred Flintstone), before it flies out to another little machine, and it texted out further like a virus to the insulted party's friends.

It exists forever, just about.

Over the past few weeks (yes finally I am getting to my point) I have had a couple of seriously angry text messages out of the blue from a couple of seriously angry ladies. At first you think: oh gawd, hormones! (Truly, you could have knocked me down with a feather.) How nasty! How silly! How petty! What Was She Thinking? The thing is, you realise that people who vent their anger in this way usually have other darker issues they can't address, and you end up feeling sorry for their plight. And worst of all, unlike words cast into the air whose edge will fade, these words are able to be reread, shown to others, even laughed at. Out of context, anger becomes pitiable, and an angry faceless message must be the pinnacle of weakness. (Cheeky grin: story material!!!)

Sigh. Get nastiness out of your life. Please. Bad energy is not a trifling thing and it will send colonies all through your body and your life. Ladies, by all means express your anger, spit it out on the plate.

But don't be silly enough to write it down. Or if you do, send it to a trusted friend who squeezes your hand and makes you cancel it!

Friday, 19 September 2014

Love Song with Cello

Faces in places: Marais girl, Paris
I caught a plane home the other day. Just a short, cheap flight. Which means a long wait and a long, unruly queue. As I stuffed and restuffed and pounded and squeezed my bag closed, I realised that my book (Alison MacLeod's 'Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction' which will give you a jolt and a buzz) was deep in the bottomless depths and I would just have to sit down and people-watch. Which I did.

But departures are never as dramatic as the great, stirring fanfare of lovers reunited, or families made whole; young children clinging to fathers or women wrapped in lovers' arms with shaky smitten smiles. The departure lounge is different. Emotions are low-key. People are tired and anxious to be at home. There will always be a chatty Italian who will soon have a crowd of listeners with flying hands. Or kids sticking their heads under tired Dad's T-shirt; African grandmothers who wished they hadn't even come. Or the Hell's Angel guy staring at you. Or the ancient twins from Greece with Nefertiti eyeliner. Or the young things baring just about all as though the airport were an extension of yet another beach party at the ratty end of summer..

I call myself a writer. Many of us do. And as writers supposedly we look for stories everywhere. We see an interesting face and imagine an entire life.We imagine love stories and stories of loss and gain and hope and voyage. (Do we? Hmmm. Well, I must be the laziest writer about because I rarely do this. I mean, I am looking and borrowing - even stealing - but goodness knows where my stories come from!) And then just when I had spent several hours deciding that the whole of Europe (including myself) was hooked on phone screens and iPads and there was not an interesting face or couple or family among them, what do I see?

I saw the most touching scene I think I have seen in ages, maybe years.

Sweet chords and rabbits
Two wheelchairs. Two old folk. One cello in a case. They are taken to the head of the queue by two young men with ID tags who chat above them, these guys are wearing twin navy sweaters.

The old lady's face is gentle. Her lips are full and she has a wide round face and eyes that are deep brown and placed wide apart on her head. She has rings on her fingers that dig into the flesh. A cello rests against her legs and it is clear this shape is a part of her life, her body, her sound, her dreams. It is the oldest part of her. She is still strong, she bears a flashing life force, she has shared this with others; she is generous, when she is alone she is never alone.

Next to her is the man I imagine is her partner, the man she has loved for decades. Perhaps he stood tall once, without the kink in his neck that makes his head droop low, makes his eyelids seem half-open, makes him seem beaten, overcome. He is a large stable man, though he looks around like a small boy; he has an expression of vacant happiness. His eyes are small and rubbed with emotion.

There are two things that I notice. Two things that I take home with me on that cheap flight.

1) The old man's hair has been cropped recently. There is an unwavering line of hair above his ear. He has a pretty good head of hair and somebody has made sure that line was straight. 

2) The old lady leans across her hand which is thick with rings and she grasps his yellowy, finer fingers within hers. He doesn't look at her, he is a bit doddery. But still this lady looks across at him with so much smooth and binding love that I am warmed and astounded.

Travel safe. The voyage is neverending.

* * * *
My short story 'Enfolded' is a shortlisted finalist in the Love on the Road Short Story Competition and will appear in next year's anthology, coming out with feisty independent Malinki Press of Dublin.